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Dewhurst urges absent Democrats to return

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX – Eleven Democratic members of the Senate who fled the state for New Mexico Monday have "no constitutional right not to show up for work," said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst today.

The 'Texas 11' as they are calling themselves flew to New Mexico Monday to bust the Senate quorum to prevent a congressional redistricting bill from coming to the Senate floor for debate. They have vowed to continue their quorum-busting trip until either Gov. Rick Perry abandons the current special session on redistricting, or until Dewhurst puts back the long standing tradition of using a "blocker bill" atop the Senate agenda.

The Republican leadership, and Republican members of the Senate, have repeatedly urged the absent Democrats to return to Austin to work.

Dewhurst reminded of Sen. Steve Ogden's (R-Bryan) remarks at a Tuesday press conference when Ogden said he was not aware of any senator who campaigned on a promise of 'Elect me and I promise I will not show up for work.'

As long as the 11 senators do not return to the chamber, the Senate cannot conduct business. Dewhurst Monday issued a call on the Senate, instructing the Senate sergeant-at-arms and his appointed officers to locate the missing senators and return them to Austin to fulfill their duties.

It didn't take long to "find" them, as the 11 held a press conference from Albuquerque on the evening of the first day of a second called special session and explained why they fled the state. And as long as they are across the state line, neither the Senate sergeant-at-arms nor any law enforcement official has the authority to have them arrested and brought back to Texas.

"They have no constitutional right to break quorum," said Dewhurst, noting that the State Constitution is clear that a quorum in the Senate includes two-thirds of the elected members and also provides "remedies" for compelling them to attend. "They have no constitutional affirmative defense for not showing up."

Dewhurst said the Senate has "unfinished work" other than just the redistricting issue. He noted that SB 21 allows for the appropriation of $23.6 million in transportation-related fees. That money, he said, would go into the state's general revenue fund and could be used to fund programs such as state medical schools, increases in Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance programs, and enhancing other programs that assist the frail and elderly.

HB 5, he said, is clarification legislation that will provide a savings of $800 million "to fund vital services" and it, too, needs to pass.

"We need our colleagues back here so we can appropriate those funds."

Dewhurst said much of the news from New Mexico from the missing 11 senators centers on voting rights issues as they relate to a proposed congressional redistricting map. He said he is committed to "protecting the voting rights of every individual, and particularly minorities." That is why every redistricting map in the Senate has been studied by the Texas Legislative Council, attorneys retained to advise the Senate Jurisprudence Committee that held hearings on the maps and attorneys with the Attorney General's office, he noted. "Nothing we do is going to affect in any way minority rights or the rights of any voters."

The lieutenant governor said he previously told the Democrats that he thought the Senate could "get behind a plan that reflects voting trends but does not affect voting rites."

Addressing the Senate's two-third rule and the blocker bill, Dewhurst said the rule is a "tradition, a management tool" to bring senators together. He again pointed out that there have been numerous special sessions when the blocker bill was not used, including the last three times redistricting was addressed.

He said the redistricting issue, which comes up every 10 years, is an issue on which it is "very, very difficult to be totally objective and bipartisan." He said that is why there has been no blocker bill in the last three redistricting sessions.

The appropriation of millions of dollars, government reorganization and school finance are "critical to all of us in Texas," he said. "The governor has chosen to call us back into a second special session. We all took an oath of office to uphold the duties and the laws of the state of Texas. Part of our duties and responsibilities are to show up for work."

The first-term lieutenant governor said he is talking with the Senate Democrats and urging them to "come back to the table to work with us on a plan that's fair."

Asked if Perry would continue to call special sessions if the Democrats do not return, Dewhurst said, "The governor is committed to having a fair redistricting plan. What his intentions would be if our colleagues don't'll have to ask the governor."

The current congressional redistricting lines are virtually the same lines drawn in 1991, said Dewhurst, and those lines even the media said "were considered the most gerrymandered lines in the country." A three-judge panel that "reviewed" the lines when the legislature could not come up with its own plan in 2001 "minutely tweaked" the lines, he said.

Earlier today, Dewhurst announced Senate appointees to two education panels, among them four of the missing Democrats- Sens. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, Royce West of Dallas and Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio. He denied the announcement was intended to lure them back to Austin.

"Not only am I interested in the timely return of Senators Lucio, Van de Putte, West and Zaffirini who are on these very important joint committees, but also in the return of the others. We have a lot of important work to do."